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U.S., Europeans Break Up Drug Operation, Seize $1B of Cocaine

By Rick Weiss
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Federal law enforcement officials said yesterday that they and their partners in 11 other countries had broken up a major international cocaine trafficking operation that was shipping enormous quantities of the drug from Colombia to Europe and the United States.

In a two-year effort that culminated last week in a live-fire speedboat chase, the seizure of a freighter and a series of storage facility raids in the Venezuelan jungle, authorities confiscated almost 25 tons of cocaine worth about $1 billion and arrested 43 people, including Ivan De La Vega, the alleged leader of the Colombian operation.

“This was one of the largest drug transportation groups ever targeted by law enforcement,” said Raymond Kelly, commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, which coordinated the North American elements of the investigation with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Coast Guard. “We wiped out a sprawling organization whose tentacles reached around the world.”

The Hollywood-like conclusion of the international drug bust-and the arrest of De La Vega and his alleged “high-level associate” Luis Antonio Navia, a Cuban national who had been living in Colombia-comes at a sensitive time in U.S. relations with Colombia and its neighbors and just days before President Clinton is to visit President Andres Pastrana in Cartegena.

Last Tuesday, Clinton signed a waiver authorizing distribution of a $1.3 billion aid package to fight drug trafficking in Colombia, which the DEA says is the world’s largest producer of cocaine. The move angered some activists because it came despite the Colombian government’s failure to meet human rights conditions set by Congress. It also irritated Colombia’s neighbors, notably Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, which have long feared that drug eradication efforts in Colombia will only push the problem over their borders.

In a contentious expression of those feelings, Venezuela has been refusing to allow U.S. drug interdiction planes to fly through its airspace, hobbling U.S. efforts to block the flow of drugs through the Caribbean and leading some in the United States to question President Hugo Chavez’s commitment to the global war on drugs.

But at a Washington news conference Saturday at which the completion of “Operation Journey” was announced, U.S. authorities emphasized that Venezuela was a key participant in the two-year effort and a leader in the final raids on snake-infested bunkers in which soldiers found 10 tons of cocaine tidily bagged and ready for loading onto ships.

Cocaine trafficking out of Colombia has changed in the past five years. The capture of Cali cartel kingpins Jose Sanatacruz Londono and brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela in 1995, and the subsequent arrest of other leaders the following year, led to a decentralization of the Colombian wholesale cocaine market. At the same time, more Colombian cocaine exports have been heading to Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, where profit margins are higher than in the United States.

As an offshoot to those trends, trafficking operations out of Colombia are using ships and personnel from a variety of nations and requiring an unprecedented amount of cooperation among law enforcement groups.

The latest effort began when European and American officials learned from informants that Colombian cocaine was being flown and trucked to a secret base in Venezuela’s Orinoco River delta, federal agents familiar with the investigation said.

From there it was being loaded onto speedboats to huge freighters anchored offshore. The big ships were mostly laden with legitimate cargo but had hidden compartments for the drugs.

With the help of informants and intercepted coded telephone messages, U.S. and European law enforcement officials conducted ship boardings and seizures. In January 1999, for example, the commercial cargo vessel Cannes was seized in the Caribbean and towed to the United States before it could get to its European destination with the 8,367 pounds of cocaine that were stored in its hold.

Four months later, a similar-size stash was found in sealed-off sewage tanks on the China Breeze, a 400-foot ship en route to Amsterdam that was boarded by authorities south of Puerto Rico. Two other ships, carrying a total of more than 13,000 pounds of cocaine, were detained and towed to U.S. shores in June and December.

By last month, officials said they had documented a total of 68 tons of cocaine with a street value of $3 billion shipped by the group-most of it to Europe but at least 11 tons to the United States-one-third of which they intercepted.

Officials said they knew better than to promise that the arrests would put a big crimp in the international drug trade. But to those entrepreneurs who hope to fill in the niche left by the arrests, Mercado said: “Law enforcement will find you, arrest you and put you out of business.”